Pandora’s Box, G.W. Pabst’s great silent film from 1929, is a classic portrait of the femme fatale. Or is it? The new print showing at the BFI allows us to think again, and the film now seems rather sceptical about fate, and much devoted to the ideas of chance and greed and obsession.

The old story of Pandora’s box, an urn apparently until its Greek turned into Latin, was surely about blaming the ills of the world on the behaviour of a woman, and by extension on all the women who came after her. This is certainly what Hesiod thinks in his Theogony, as he ends his account of the creation of the beautiful figure: ‘This was the origin of the damnable race of women – a plague which men must live with.’ But Hesiod’s actual narrative suggests a quite different causality, not a woman who is to blame but a woman who can be blamed, a sort of glittering scapegoat. Zeus orders Hephaestus to make a ‘tender girl’ out of clay; Athena dresses her in ‘silvery clothes’ and a ‘marvellous embroidered veil’, adding a ‘golden diadem’ for good measure. Zeus breathes life into her and shows her to an ‘assembly of gods and men’. Both teams are said to have been ‘speechless when they saw how deadly and irresistible was the trick with which Zeus was going to catch mankind’. This girl doesn’t even need to open a box, she herself is trouble personified.

Pabst’s film is based on two plays by Frank Wedekind, The Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904). His Lulu is a feral relative of the beautiful, damaging kept women who haunt 19th-century theatre and opera. A prologue to the first play tells us that she was ‘created to do harm, to tempt and lead astray’, and compares her to a snake. The speaker’s pretend-question – he is an animal-tamer in a circus – is whether she or a tiger is more dangerous. Even so, the character in the play is too volatile and human to stay obediently in the myth. A painter says he has never portrayed anyone whose expressions changed so constantly, and she herself says: ‘I don’t care what people think of me. I’d like above all not to be better than I am.’ This sounds sane rather than destructive, and her moralising, immoral lover is predictably shocked. She is the centre of plenty of storms, but she herself is not a storm.

Wedekind refers literally to Pandora only in his title. Pabst has the prosecution lawyer invoke her name when Lulu is on trial. She has killed her lover in a scuffle caused by his trying to force her to kill herself with the revolver he has kindly provided. ‘Don’t make a murderer of me,’ he says. Why does he want her dead? Well, this is where Zeus’ trick seems to be working. The lover is an older man, the editor of a Berlin newspaper, and he has decided to ditch Lulu and marry a respectable person. In the movie’s first scene he grimly and awkwardly tells her the news. She laughs and invites him to kiss her. He refuses. She says: ‘Just because you’re getting married?’ She doesn’t care what people think of her, and she doesn’t care what he does, as long as he doesn’t leave her.

But then he brings his fiancée to see Lulu in a revue, where she is a leading dancer. Lulu catches sight of her during a break, and refuses to return to the show. Everyone tries to persuade her to go back: the stage manager, the editor’s son, who is the show’s director, and the editor himself. Nothing works, until he ends up kissing her, and is caught out by his fiancée. Lulu is delighted – in an essay accompanying the Criterion Collection version of the film, J. Hoberman says ‘few movie moments are more electrifying’ than her ‘radiant smirk of triumph’ – and returns happily to her dance number. This is the one moment in the work where she does seem to be a femme fatale. She has her powers of enchantment, and she uses them. But for every irresistible person there is someone failing to resist, and the arrogant, monocled lover is almost likeable here, a victim of desire rather than the pompous preacher he otherwise is.

Now he decides he has to marry Lulu, and the next scene is the after-wedding party. It is because Lulu is so friendly at the feast with her former pimp – she has told her lover-husband that the man is her father – that he wants to kill her. Driven by outraged respectability, it appears, not jealousy. He’s not Othello. The pimp, now 77 years old, taught her how to dance and passed her on up the social ladder. He shows up periodically to say hello and collect a little money, and waxes quite sentimental about Lulu’s wedding. At the end of the movie he is still going strong, eating Christmas pudding while Lulu is being murdered by Jack the Ripper. Perhaps there is such a thing as an homme fatal, the indestructible buffoon who represents scruffy, cynical reason.

At the trial, Lulu’s lawyer seems half in love with her himself, and so is almost too persuasive about the impossibility of her killing anyone. Lulu, repeatedly shown in elegant, hazy close-up, looks demure and modest, about as far from her usual self as she could be. It’s not that she usually looks guilty or complicated. She just looks as if she doesn’t know how not to have fun. Earlier, when she tells two of her friends that she has been offered a job by a trapeze artist, she runs lightly across the room and swings from a curtain rod to give them the idea. They are both, man and woman, in love with her, but that is not what their faces say. They just express wonderment and pleasure that such a person could exist.

The prosecution lawyer has no case, just the myth we know. ‘The Greek gods,’ he says in his silent world and on a title card, ‘created a woman – beautiful, alluring, skilled in the arts of flattery.’ Again there is a note of intricate overdetermination. If this woman is going to wreak havoc by ‘unthinkingly’ opening a box, she could look like the Wicked Witch of the West and still do her job. ‘I call her Pandora,’ the lawyer says of Lulu, and demands the death sentence. Lulu gets five years, but friends of hers set off a fire alarm and she escapes from the court in the confusion.

She was headed for Paris initially but ends up on a ship that serves as a casino, and everyone now uses her as an asset – her powers of seduction have turned into crude marketability. She funds the increasingly self-destructive gambling of her friend, her old lover’s son; an indigent marquis sells her to an Egyptian entrepreneur; and her colleague the trapeze artist wants her to back his new show. The logic is obvious, and leads only to the more ordinary type of prostitution. So she and her friend and her ancient pimp take off for England. ‘We must try to get a ship to London,’ the old boy says. Why London? It’s hard to find a reason internal to the story, but Pabst likes these meta-moments: Lulu can’t meet Jack the Ripper anywhere else.

The film is full of shadows and mirrors, faces caught in the half-light. It uses silence as if it were an instrument of interpretation or obfuscation. And it is especially secretive about death. When Lulu shoots her lover, we glimpse only a puff of smoke rising between the two figures – his back is turned towards us, we can scarcely see her. Later she is clearly holding the gun. But then when he faces us, there is no sign of any wound: his white waistcoat is as immaculate as ever. He is dying of an allusion to shooting. Similarly when Jack the Ripper kills Lulu – he seemed at one point to have renounced his trade for the evening, since he threw away his own weapon – we see him pick up a kitchen knife, and the inference is clear. His obsession wavered, but is now back in force again. In the midst of an embrace, Lulu’s hand slackens, and falls away from the man’s body. There is no reason to doubt the storyline, and I don’t think Pabst is trying to create an ambiguity. But the discretion is curious, and works well metaphorically. Lulu didn’t really ‘kill’ that man, though she did fire the gun. And she didn’t really ‘die’ when she was murdered; because energy and grace of the kind she embodies can’t die. Or rather: we know they can and do, but we don’t want to settle for this knowledge. Not straightaway, at least.

Pabst’s Lulu is not Wedekind’s Lulu. But she is not all Pabst’s either. He had thought of casting Marlene Dietrich in the role, a wonderful idea. But a different idea. Louise Brooks’s performance has a kind of innocence that takes us a long way from Dietrich, and above all it relies on her ability to look as if she can’t stop laughing, even when she’s scared or angry. She has an infectious kindness too, she wants everyone to have a good time, and she has no respect for social distinctions. Who else would be so happy to see her former pimp, treat him as an old pal rather than an old pain or ghost? And when Jack the Ripper says he has no money, Brooks/Lulu says she likes him anyway, rather undermining the commercial point of her evening out. I can imagine Dietrich doing this as Lulu too, but it would play very differently. We would see a desolate irony, the kindness of despair, not an uncanny ability to forget what trouble is. What if Pandora did not thoughtlessly open the box? What if she looked inside and decided the worries of both gods and humans were exaggerated?

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